Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Red meat, with a dash of bipartisanship

Jonathan Bernstein points out that Obama today delivered red meat to some very anemic-feeling progressives:
Liberals like to think of themselves as the grown-ups of the budget debate? Obama gave both a budget history lesson and some facts about the composition of the budget that positioned himself -- and liberals -- as serious, compared to those who talk about waste, abuse, and foreign aid.
True dat, but by way of counterpoint: while Obama quite pointedly blamed Bush for the enormous deficits and debt of today...
But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program -– but we didn't pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts -– tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.
He also biparti-parceled the credit for deficit reduction in the decade preceding:
our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation's deficit -- three times. They forged historic agreements that required tough decisions made by the first President Bush, then made by President Clinton, by Democratic Congresses and by a Republican Congress. All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice. But they largely protected the middle class; they largely protected our commitment to seniors; they protected our key investments in our future.

As a result of these bipartisan efforts, America's finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers.
This big-tent praise became important late in the speech, when Obama amassed evidence that, contrary to current perception, bipartisanship has happened throughout our bitterly polarized recent history:
Of course, there are those who simply say there's no way we can come together at all and agree on a solution to this challenge. They'll say the politics of this city are just too broken; the choices are just too hard; the parties are just too far apart. And after a few years on this job, I have some sympathy for this view. (Laughter.)

But I also know that we've come together before and met big challenges. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill came together to save Social Security for future generations. The first President Bush and a Democratic Congress came together to reduce the deficit. President Clinton and a Republican Congress battled each other ferociously, disagreed on just about everything, but they still found a way to balance the budget. And in the last few months, both parties have come together to pass historic tax relief and spending cuts.
And suddenly, set off by this speech's principled but forceful attack on the Ryan plan and the values underlying it, Obama's dissonant boast last Friday about the spending cuts in the 2011 budget seems to fall into strategic place.  What progressives largely wrote off as a spineless preemptive giveaway -- Obama's yearlong gestures toward "belt-tightening" on discretionary domestic spending -- took on some credibility as what he's cast it as -- a down payment on real deficit reduction:
Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe the government can make a difference in people's lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works -– by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.
Of course, the very fact that my heart sings to all this in an odd way illustrates the Frances Lee hypothesis that I (and many others) keep reverting to: a strong presidential policy position polarizes. Obama called for Gang of Six negotiations to be concluded by June; the Republicans in that group are growling that he may have scuttled them.  Well, time will tell. The debate needed to be moved left, or it was not worth having.

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